110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
Fire sparks painful memories
By Pat Hatfield
posted Sep 10, 2009 - 8:57:17am
One senseless act can damage and even destroy families. The aftereffects cause heartbreak and tears three decades later.
So it is with the murders of Minnie McKendree and her daughter, Jessica Weber.
They were murdered June 10, 1978, at what was then called the St. Johns Fishing Club at Hontoon Island. The fish camp, later renamed Sunrise Fish Camp and Bar, burned down Aug. 8.
Aug. 8 was Jessica Weber’s birthday.
News of the fire spread among the Sunrise Fish Camp clientele and other river people like wildfire. The popular restaurant and bar will be missed.
The fire reawakened old pain and old memories for Lewis Krouse. He is Minnie’s son and Jessica’s brother.
Minnie was 49 when she died. Jessica was only 16, a sophomore at DeLand High School.
Jasper Hiers, who owned the fish camp then, was Minnie’s boyfriend. He was nearly 20 years older. Minnie and her family had moved to the fish camp with him when Lewis was 12 or 13 years old.
Lewis Krouse remembers the events leading to the murders, and he has a reason for sharing the story with The Beacon.
“I want people to know what happened, instead of guessing,” he said. “I want people to know why my grandkids didn’t have a great-grandmother.”
Everybody knew his mother, Minnie. They called her “Jenny.” She was the heart and soul of the fish camp.
“I still miss her,” Lewis said.
He described Jenny as the kind of person who would give you the shirt off her back. She made clothes for people. “No matter who you were, or what color you were, if you needed something, if she didn’t have it, she would try to borrow it for you.”
Jessica, at 16, “was just starting life. She shouldn’t have had no enemy in the world,” Lewis said.
He described the events leading to the murders.
Lewis, his brother Allyn, and Jasper Hiers, known as “Buck,” were playing pool at the fish camp. Jenny and Allyn were talking about the grandkids. There was some talk about which grandkids were Jenny’s favorites.
Buck had been drinking. He and Allyn started arguing. Buck was argumentative with everyone.
Buck could be abusive, even violent, Lewis said.
It was a tense day.
“Buck pulled a gun on me that afternoon,” Lewis said.
Lewis took the gun to Terry Jorgensen at Holly Bluff Marina later that afternoon, to get it out of the way.
Jorgensen remembers that. He described Lewis as not much more than a young kid at the time, sort of a “river rat” on whom Jorgensen never saw shoes, but who was always courteous.
“He came out here and was scared to death, and gave me the gun,” Jorgensen said.
He described the gun as an old-fashioned six-shooter. He doesn’t know now what became of it.
But that wasn’t the only gun Hiers owned.
Jenny and Buck, apparently, continued arguing into the night.
Lewis was awakened at 8 the next morning, to the news his mother and sister were dead.
“My mother and sister were beaten with a cue stick,” Lewis said. Both of them also were shot.
Kristy Krouse Campbell, Lewis’ daughter, was about 5 at the time of the murders. She doesn’t remember much; she was shielded from the horror.
She does remember her aunt and grandmother.
Kristy remembers the Slim Jims and Cokes her grandmother gave the kids for snacks. “I remember her best just being so nice to everyone.”
Kristy also has good memories of her aunt.
“Aunt Jessica was a sweetheart. My brother Steven and I would wait every day outside for her to get off the school bus so she could push us around on our tricycles.
“I also remember her having a donkey named Chico that stayed in the field by where we lived. She had the prettiest red hair and the cutest freckles.”
Kristy named a daughter in Jessica’s honor.
Jasper “Buck” Hiers is dead and can’t talk.
He was 68 years old at the time of the murders, nearly 20 years older than Jenny, according to the DeLand Sun News report published Aug. 8, 1978.
Both women were alive when deputies found them on the floor of the St. Johns Fishing Club around 2 a.m., the newspaper said. Investigators believed the violence happened around 12:30 a.m.
Jessica died at the hospital at 7 a.m. Jenny died seven days later. The newspaper said Jenny had been shot “a number of times.” One of the bullets was fired into her mouth, Lewis said.
Jessica was shot once in the head.
Why would Buck do it?
Lewis said that along with a predisposition to violence, Buck suffered from myasthenia gravis, a progressive disease that caused muscular weakness. He was angry about the deterioration of his body. He had been in the hospital not too long before the murders.
Without some deep anger burning inside, Lewis wondered, how could Buck have shot Jessica, his favorite, whom he called “Little Red” because of her red hair?
Lewis learned his mom had been spending nights at the bar, instead of going home to Buck. He believes Jenny was trying to leave Buck that night, and that’s why Buck killed her and her daughter.
A grandchild Jenny had been baby-sitting that night, 18-month-old Samantha, daughter of Lewis’ sister Mickey, was found unhurt on a table in the bar, strapped into a car seat. It appeared Jenny had been planning to put the child into the car, and Jessica, too, and leave Buck.
Samantha is now grown and living in West Volusia.
DeLand attorney Craig James defended Buck Hiers. James is still not convinced Buck was guilty.
Buck’s myasthenia gravis weakened his muscles. Plus, James said, Buck had vision problems, and he had a wound on one leg from another medical condition, osteomyelitis. He had a hernia, too.
How could this elderly man subdue two healthy women, then shoot them as they sat at a table, James still wonders.
“At the trial, he had no memory of what occurred,” James said.
James even had a psychiatrist administer truth serum to the older man. “Still, he could not tell me what happened,” James said.
Forensics were poor in those days, he added.
Buck wasn’t convicted of first-degree murder, but of second-degree murder.
He was sentenced to Raiford State Penitentiary, and was released early because of his poor health.
Buck spent most of his time at Raiford in the infirmary.
After his release, Buck went to Miami, where he had family. He died a year or two later.
Lewis is still angry that Buck spent so little time in prison for two murders.
Along with James, other people who are now prominent in the community were associated with the case.
Howard McBride, who rose through the ranks of service with the Sheriff’s Office, was one of the first deputies on the scene, the Sun News reported. He doesn’t remember details of the case.
McBride, now retired, is busy as chairman of the board of directors for the Pierson Medical Clinic.
Lake Helen Mayor-elect Buddy Snowden was a Sheriff’s Office investigator with the major-case unit assigned to the Krouse double homicide.
“I recall the tragic crime scene. I do know that Mr. Hiers had quite a temper and had a predisposition to violence.”
For Snowden, the details have faded over the years. It sounds plausible to him that perhaps Jenny was getting ready to leave Buck, though.
“I know there was some kind of argument,” Snowden said.
Terry Jorgensen said he never had any problem with Buck.
“He was sort of a funny old duck. He was one of the guys who liked to be left alone,” Jorgensen said. “He was sort of reclusive.”
Rosemary Smith, now retired, was a young reporter who covered the trial for The Daytona Beach News-Journal. It was held in what is now the Volusia County Historic Courthouse, in the big courtroom.
“The whole thing was just sad,” Smith said. She recalls Buck as “this sad figure in the courtroom,” but she didn’t particularly feel sorry for him.
As for others, for Smith, the details have grown dim with time. She remembers Buck had snow-white hair. He told the court he didn’t remember the night of the murders.
Few details of the murders were brought into court.
“It wasn’t like CSI,” Smith said. There was no dramatic re-creation of the crime scene, nor analyses of bullet trajectories.
“We never had much of a description of how it happened,” she said.
The trial wasn’t well-attended, and when the verdict came in at 8 p.m., only a few reporters and court staff were there. The spectators had all gone home.
The fish camp today
Roy Simms, who bought the fish camp from Buck right after the murders and ran it until it burned down last month, described Buck as “one of the kindest men I ever knew.”
Simms didn’t understand how Buck could have committed the murders.
Some commenters on The Beacon’s online story about the recent fire expressed a little ill-will toward Simms for acquiring the fish camp from Buck. Lewis Krouse doesn’t feel that way.
Simms is a good man who had nothing to do with the murders, Lewis said. He wants Simms to know that, and vowed to come out and help Simms with rebuilding.
The Simms family has said it will investigate whether the restaurant can be rebuilt on the site, considering new county codes now in place.
The fire is still under investigation by the state Fire Marshal’s Office. The cause is officially unknown, but no evidence of arson has been found.
Kristy Krouse said for her and for her father, the fire’s destruction of the building where the murders occurred helped bring a measure of closure.
For her, the place was full of bad memories. There were stories about her grandmother’s and aunt’s bloodstains on the floor, and painful visions of people laughing and eating where the two women died.
Kristy knows Simms had nothing to do with the murders, and said the family bears him no ill will. She’s sorry for the Simmses’ loss because of the fire, and sorry to hear Roy Simms is in bad health.
Simms didn’t want to talk about old times.
“It’s water over the dam,” he said.
He would like the past to remain in the past.
And it is, mostly. The newspaper accounts live on on microfilm at the DeLand Area Public Library. The Sheriff’s Office can’t locate the old case files.
Not gone, though, are the memories of those who knew Jenny, Jessica and Buck.
Time, like the river, moves at its own pace, carrying pain and heartbreak like flotsam.
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